State Lawmakers to Tackle High Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 16, 2020

The Washington, DC-based AARP began its call for reducing prescription drug prices nationally in the late spring of 2019. At the same time, state legislatures around the country began taking up legislation. However, in Rhode Island, where the legislature meets only once a year, from January to June, it was too late to introduce bill in last year’s session.

AARP’s Elaine Ryan, VP of State Advocacy and Strategy reports: “We’re seeing an unprecedented number of states tackling the problem of high prescription drug prices. About 45 states expect to engage on prescription drug legislation or regulations this year. Right now, AARP is actively engaged in legislation in 25 states to address rising prescription drug prices. A variety of bills are moving through state legislatures, including bills on cost-sharing caps on insulin, price transparency, importation, price gouging, and affordability boards.”

Now, AARP Rhode Island is gearing up its lobbying efforts on Smith Hill this legislative session to put the brakes on rising prescription drug costs.

High Prescription Costs Top AARP Rhode Island’s Issues

State Director Kathleen Connell, of AARP Rhode Island, led the charge against skyrocketing drug costs by taking the group’s “Stop Rx Greed: Cut Drug Prices Now” campaign to four Rhode Island communities. At its AARP RI Community Conversations kickoff event in Warwick on Oct. 15, she called on Congress and the Rhode Island General Assembly to make prescription drugs more affordable a legislative priority. “We pay not only at the pharmacy counter, but through higher insurance premiums, and through the higher taxes we need to pay to fund programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Older Americans are hit especially hard. Medicare Part D enrollees take an average of 4 to 5 prescriptions per month, and their average annual income is around $26,000. One in three Americans has not taken a medication as prescribed because of the cost,” she said.

Connell reported that a recent AARP Rhode Island’s survey revealed that 79 percent of the member respondents called for lowering the price of prescription drugs, considering it the organization’s top priority.

During these events, using state-by-state specific data released last summer by AARP researchers, Connell was able to use Rhode Island data to document an increase in drug costs for seniors, identifying these drugs, the number of Rhode Islanders who need them and how much costs have risen.

Rhode Island’s state specific data revealed that the average annual cost of brand name prescription drug treatment increased 58 percent between 2012 and 2017, while the annual income for Rhode Island increased only 5.6 percent. Prescription drugs don’t work if patients can’t afford them, says the aging advocacy group, says Connell.

AARP Rhode Island also held Community Conversations in North Providence (Oct. 29), East Providence (Nov. 21) and Newport (Dec. 5). About 80 people attended these events, including in the legislative districts in those communities, along with Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio (D-District 4, North Providence, Providence) and House Majority Leader Joseph Shekarchi (D-District 23, Warwick).

AARP Rhode Island Calls for Lower Prescription Drug Costs

On Feb. 5, over 120 people, including state lawmakers, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, and AARP Rhode Island staff and members, gathered in the State Room to attend the AARP Rhode Island Annual Reception. The event would become the backdrop to announce the Rhode Island Senate’s legislative agenda to tackle increasing prescription drug costs, the unveiling of package of eight bills supported by AARP Rhode Island.

At the event, Connell said: “This is an issue we are pounding on and I think you are going to see progress this year on this stellar important issue – Stop Rx Greed. I don’t need to go through the list of hardships suffered as these prices escalate way beyond reason. And we know this can’t continue the way it is. It’s probably not going to be a silver bullet that will solves this, but a lot of lot more work of the kind you have seen to make this iceberg move.”

Senate President Ruggerio along with 14 Senators from his chamber came to announce their support of the AARP sponsored legislation that would provide a pathway to import less-costly drugs from Canada, increase more market transparency, raise senior’s awareness around price changes and limit patients’ share of the costs.

House Majority Leader Shekarchi, came to the legislative reception with 20 House lawmakers, to share their concern about the lack of affordability of prescription. Shekarchi personally knows about high drug costs. “I am a Type II Diabetic and I have a lot of prescriptions. I feel the pain because I pay $30 a pill with the copay. I know what it costs and it is ridiculous,” he says.

“Patients deserve to know what drugs will cost, how they can pay for them in a fair and reasonable way, and how they can take advantage of any or all opportunities to save on those costs,” said Shekarchi, stressing that “people living on fixed incomes should not have to skimp between doing what is essential in buying prescription drugs, or food or housing.”

Shekarchi noted that he has already put in legislation with House colleagues, calling for Rhode Island’s insurers to completely cover the cost of copays for epinephrine injectors, or EpiPens. The bill would help reduce the high cost of the injectors, which has prevented some people with allergies from obtaining the life-saving device. The Warwick lawmaker also cosponsored a bill to create a prescription drug affordability board to protect Rhode Islanders from the high costs of prescription drug products.

Shekarchi concluded, by announcing that House lawmakers will shortly join the Senate in introducing AARP’s package of legislation (from five up to eight bills).

In a statement announcing the introduction of Senate bills to lower prescription drug costs, Ruggerio said: “Rhode Island’s population is one of the oldest in the nation, and the high prices consumers pay for prescriptions have a significant impact on us. Most older Rhode Islanders have limited means, and the high costs mean many people are cutting back on essentials of living or taking less than their prescribed amount of expensive drugs. The pharmaceutical industry is not going to address this on its own, so it’s up to the state and federal governments to take action.”

Tackling the High Cost of Prescription Drugs

After AARP Rhode Island’s Annual Legislative Reception, the following legislative proposals were thrown into the legislative hopper that day and companion measures have now been introduced in the House.

Senate legislative proposals included:

A bill limiting changes to a health plan’s drug formulary — its list of covered drugs — to protect consumers. Sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth A. Crowley (D-District 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket), this legislation (S 2324) would generally limit plans to modifying formularies at renewal time with 60 days’ notice and require that modification be identical among all substantially identical benefit plans.

Legislation (S 2319) sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey (D-District 29, Warwick) to cap out-of-pocket expenses for prescription drugs at the federal limits for high-deductible health plans, currently $1,400 for individual plans and $2,800 for family plans.

A bill (S 2317) sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-District 1, Providence) to prohibit cost sharing for patients 45 or older for colorectal screening examinations, laboratory tests and colonoscopies covered by health insurance policies or plans.

Legislation (S 2322) sponsored by Sen. Melissa A. Murray (D-District 24, Woonsocket, North Smithfield) to limit the copay for prescription insulin to $50 for a 30-day supply for health plans that provide coverage for insulin.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Walter S. Felag Jr. (D-District 10, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton) requiring pharmacists to advise patients about less-expensive generic alternatives to their prescriptions or when it would cost them less to pay for their drugs outright instead of using their insurance. The bill (S 2323) would also bar pharmacy benefits managers from imposing gag orders on pharmacists that prevent them from making such disclosures.

A prescription drug transparency act (S 2318), sponsored by Senate President Ruggerio. This bill would requires pharmaceutical drug manufacturers to provide wholesale drug acquisition cost information to the Department of Health and pharmacy benefit managers to provide information related to drug prices, rebates, fees and drug sales to the health insurance commissioner annually. Such transparency would help payers determine whether high prescription costs are justified.

A bill (S 2321) sponsored by Sen. Louis P. DiPalma (D-District 12, Middletown, Little Compton, Tiverton, Newport) to create a state-administered program to import wholesale prescription drugs from Canada, which has drug safety regulations similar to those of the United States. Such programs are allowed under federal law, with approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Legislation (S 2320) sponsored by Sen. Cynthia A. Coyne (D-District 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence) to create a prescription drug affordability board tasked with investigating and comprehensively evaluating drug prices for Rhode Islanders and possible ways to reduce them to make them more affordable.

As the 2020 Presidential election looms, Congress and state law makers are very aware that lowering skyrocketing prescription drug costs is a top priority for their older constituents. With more than 250 bills passed by the Democrats in the House (some of these bills would lower prescription drug costs) sitting in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “legislative graveyard,” the Rhode Island General Assembly must take the lead to legislatively fix the problem.

Connell anticipates that there might be more than 15 drug bills in the House and Senate, 10 submitted by AARP. Rhode Island lawmakers must seriously consider these legislative proposals and join the 26 states that have already passed new laws aimed at lowering prices for prescription medications.

Jenkins: Working Senior’s Priming the Nation’s Economic Engine

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 22, 2019

In recent years, Senate Majority Leader Mich McConnell of Kentucky, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and even former House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, have warned that the growing number of seniors is fast becoming an economic drag to the nation’s economic growth, citing the spiraling costs of Social Security and Medicare. As the 2020 presidential election looms, GOP candidates are calling for reining in the skyrocketing federal budget deficit by slashing these popular domestic programs.

In 2015, President Donald Trump declared that he would not touch Social Security and Medicare. But now some GOP insiders are saying he may cut these programs during his second term, if he wins.

But after you read the newly released AARP report, The Longevity Economy Outlook, you may just want to consider these comments about seniors being a drain on the economy as false and misleading claims, just “fake news.”

AARP’s Longevity Economy Outlook report pulls from national data detailing how much people age 50 and older spend, earn working and pay in taxes.

Just days ago, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins penned a blog article on the Washington, DC-based aging group’s website highlighting the findings of this major report. AARP’s top senior executive strongly disputes the myth that people age 50 and over are an economic drain on society. Rather the report’s findings indicate that older workers, who are getting a monthly Social Security check and receiving Medicare benefits, are priming the nation’s economic engine, she says.

“As the number of people over 50 grows, this cohort group is transforming America’s economic markets and sparking fresh ideas, and the demand for new products and services across our economy,” says Jenkins.

Jenkins notes that when older workers delay their retirement they continue to impact the economy by earning a paycheck, purchasing goods and services, and generating tax revenues for local, state and federal government.

“The economic activity of people 50-plus supports 88.6 million jobs in the U.S. generates $5.7 trillion in wages and salaries, and accounts for $2.1 trillion in combined taxes,” says Jenkins.

AARP’s economic impact study, released on Dec. 19, reports that people age 50 and older contribute a whopping $8.3 trillion to the U.S. economy, putting this age group just behind the U.S. (20.5 trillion) and China (13.4 trillion) when measured by gross domestic product. They also create an additional $745 billion in value through being unpaid family caregivers (see my commentary in the November 17/18 issues of the Woonsocket Call and Pawtucket Times).

Jenkins says, AARP ’s major report also projects the economic impact of older works to continue in the coming decades, tripling to more than $28 trillion by 2050 as younger generations (millennials and Generation Z) turn age 50 in 2031 and 2047, respectively.

With the graying of the nation’s population (predicted to be 157 million by 2050), the AARP report predicts that older persons will have more collective spending power, too, says Jenkins. “Fifty-six cents of every dollar spent in the United States in 2018 came from someone 50 or older,” she says, adding that by 2050 this amount is expected to jump to 61 cents of every dollar.

For over six years, AARP has been tracking the economic impact of older adults on the nation’s economy, Jenkins’ penned in her recently published blog article. It’s growing steadily over these years, she says.

“When AARP began researching the economic power of people 50 and older in 2013, we found that they generated $7.1 trillion in economic activity,” says Jenkins, noting that three years later it had grown to 7.5 trillion. “The 2019 report reflects an 11 percent growth in economic impact, a 6 percent growth in jobs created and a 12 percent growth in wages and salaries over the most recent three-year period,” adds Jenkins.

Older Rhode Islanders and the State’s Economy

By virtue of Rhode Island being one of the oldest states per capita in the country we have long been aware of the contribution and buying power older people contribute to the state’s economy,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “When you add in those 50-64 it becomes a big and powerful percentage of the population,” she says.

Over the years, Connell has observed more engagement with AARP in the younger end of the demographic spectrum because people in their 50s have justifiable concerns about their future. They wonder: “Will they outspend their savings? Will Social Security change in ways that will reduce their benefits? Will out-of-pocket prescription drug expenses sink the savings they hope to put away for retirement?,” she says.

“Waiting for retirement to think about these issues could well be too late,” warns Connell. “This is creating greater interest in government and politics and magnifies the importance of their vote,” she adds.

“At the same time, as older Rhode Islanders remain the workforce longer, they are keep paying taxes – a sizable plus for the state’s economy,” observes Connell. “With their extensive experience, many continue to be movers and shakers, innovators and professionals lending guidance that helps fuel economic growth,” she states.

Connell adds: “Outside the workplace, they are connected in new ways via technology and social media. The great thing is that across the range of 50 and older workers it can be said that more people are sharing the workplace adding to our cultural development and participating in civic engagement more than ever before.”

Wake Up Call to Businesses, Congress

AARP’s report should be a “wake-up call” to businesses and federal and state policymakers to rethink their attitudes, warns Jenkins in the concluding of her blog article. She calls on business leaders to “build strategies for marketing their products and services to older Americans and to embrace a multi-generational workforce.” Jenkins also urges Congress and state law makers to develop policies to support the growing number of uncompensated caregivers.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase “Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly,” a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Democratic House Passes Landmark Legislation to Drive Down Spiraling Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 16, 2019

Just days ago, the Democratic House leadership successfully pushed for passage of landmark legislation, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3), that would give Medicare the power to negotiate directly with drug companies to bring down pharmaceutical prices and make those savings available to seniors.

House Democrats passed Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s sweeping legislation on Dec. 12 to lower the cost of prescription drugs on a largely party-line vote. The bill, which passed 230 to 192 with unanimous Democratic support and the backing of two Republicans, Reps Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Penn) and Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Wash), is considered “dead on arrival” in the Senate. The White House has indicated President Trump would veto H.R. 3 it if it came to his desk.

The House Republicans fought to block passage of H.R. 3 by releasing their own legislative proposal, H.R. 19, to lower drug costs. The bill, consisting of bipartisan legislative provisions to lower drug costs that had already been adopted, would have achieved lower drug prices without imposing government price controls that House Republicans believed would decrease research and development spending for new drug cures.

Although House Republican Whip Steve Scalise called on the Democratic leadership to bring H.R. 19, with 135 sponsors and no Democrats, to the House Floor, the GOP proposal did not receive a vote on its own. It was offered by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) as an amendment to H.R. 3 and failed by a vote of 201 to 223, getting eight Democrat votes.

The Nuts and Bolts

H.R. 3 would put the brakes of spiraling drug cost by giving power to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate directly with drug companies to force real price reductions while also ensuring that seniors never lose access to the medicines they need. The legislation also expands access to the lower, negotiated drug prices to persons with private insurance, not just Medicare beneficiaries.

The 320-page House bill also prevents pharmaceutical companies from price gouging patients by capping the maximum price for a negotiated drug at the average price people in countries similar to the U.S. pay. It would create a brand new, $2,000 out-of-pocket limit on prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries and even delivers vision, dental, and hearing benefits to Medicare beneficiaries for the first time.

H.R. 3 also increases the number of low-income seniors eligible for assistance with their drug costs and cost sharing for hospital and doctor visits. By extending guaranteed issue protections to disabled beneficiaries and to individuals who want to switch from Medicare Advantage to traditional Medicare, the legislation improves access to private supplemental coverage that helps fill in Medicare’s gaps for beneficiaries in traditional Medicare.

“The U.S. House of Representatives resoundingly defied Big Pharma today by-passing historic legislation to lower prescription drug prices for America’s seniors and their families. The Lower Drug Costs Now Act (H.R. 3) accomplishes what we and other advocates have long demanded — that Medicare be empowered to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, which the CBO says will save more than $450 billion in drug costs. It also caps Medicare beneficiaries’ out-of-pocket prescription drug costs at $2,000 per year, says Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, in a statement.

The Pros and Cons of H.R. 3

Richtman says that it is time for the Senate Chamber to act. Drug pricing legislation that passed by the Senate Finance Committee has not been brought up for a vote on the Senate floor. “We insist that the Senate follow the House’s lead and act now to lift the burden of crushing prescription drug prices. Seniors who have been rationing pills or foregoing other necessities in order to afford crucial medications have waited long enough,” he says.

In a statement released following House passage of H.R. 3, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond, called the legislation” a bold step toward lowering prescription drug prices and high out-of-pocket costs for millions of older Americans.”
“High drug prices disproportionately hurt older Americans, particularly Medicare Part D enrollees, who take between four and five prescription medications each month and have an average annual income of just over $26,000 a year. The average annual price of a specialty drug used on a chronic basis is now $79,000. Medications cannot work if they are unaffordable, says LeaMond.

Adds AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, “Drug companies are price-gouging older Americans and taxpayers– who pay the highest drug costs in the world,” noting that “AARP is proud to support H.R. 3, which would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and cap out-of-pocket costs for Part D enrollees. The bill also enhances Medicare by improving access and adding needed dental, hearing, and vision coverage.”

Opposing the passage of H.R. 3, the White House says in a statement, “Heavy-handed government intervention may reduce drug prices in the short term, but these savings are not worth the long-term cost of American patients losing access to new lifesaving treatments.” Noting that lowering the price of prescription drugs is major concern for seniors, the White Houses warned that H.R. 3 is the wrong approach to address this issue, “especially when bipartisan legislative alternatives that encourage innovation while lowering prescription drug

During a briefing with reporters over two months ago, President and CEO Stephen Ubl, of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), warned the passage of H.R.3 would trigger “nuclear winter” for biotech innovation. Fiercely opposing passage, PhRMA has called on the Senate to “stop H.R. 3 in its tracks.”

Putting the Brakes on Rising Drug Costs in Rhode Island

“We all know someone who has been forced to ration the medication they need to live so that they can afford to keep a roof over their family’s heads or put food on the table. In America, in 2019, this should never be the case,” said Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-RI), who voted to pass the measure. “Pharmaceutical companies have abused American patients and taxpayers to increase their profits hand over fist without recourse for too long. The Lower Drug Costs Now Act will put an end to the price gouging by big pharma that sees American patients and taxpayers paying more for their prescription drugs than people in other countries, says the Rhode Island Congressman representing the state’s first congressional district.

In his 2016 campaign, President Donald J. Trump supported the government to negotiate drug prices. Cicilline calls on the president to honor this promise and urges Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring a companion measure to the Senate floor for consideration. At press time more than 300 House passed bills are stuck in the Senate (about 275 are bipartisan).

According to Cicilline, the out-of-pocket savings to Rhode Islanders will be substantial. “This year alone, more than 1,000 women in the state will be diagnosed with breast cancer, 550 people will be told they have prostate cancer, and 190 folks will be diagnosed with leukemia. H.R. 3 will lower the average costs of many popular medications for these and other cancer treatments. The cost of Ibrance for treating breast cancer will be reduced by as much as 65 percent. Zytiga, a common prescription for people with prostate cancer, will be reduced by as much as 66 percent. And the cost of Tasigna, which is commonly prescribed to people with leukemia, will go down by as much as 71 percent,” says Cicilline, who serves as the Democratic Policy and Communication Committee Chair.

Earlier this year, the Rhode Island Congressman released information detailing how much more Rhode Islanders with diabetes pay for their insulin than people in other countries. Currently, 8.6 percent of Rhode Islanders, just over 83,000 people, have diabetes. They pay from $1,200 to $20,000 per year for the most commonly used insulin medications. Under the newly passed H.R. 3, the average total cost of NovoLOG Flexpen, a common insulin medicine, would decrease by as much as 76 percent. Under H.R. 3, Rhode Islanders could spend 3.5 times less on insulin, and some of the commonly used insulins could cost as little as $400 per year.

According to Cicilline, seniors in his Congressional District will see Medicare improvements if H.R. 3 becomes law. At this time, Medicare does not provide coverage for: oral exams for 71 percent of beneficiaries, eye exams for 66 percent of beneficiaries, hearing exams for 66 percent of beneficiaries, dental exams for 75 percent of beneficiaries, eye glasses for 75 percent of beneficiaries, and hearing aids for 86 percent beneficiaries.

Under H.R. 3’s Medicare expansion, 93 percent of beneficiaries (98,800 people) stand to gain from adding a dental benefit, 75 percent of beneficiaries stand to gain from adding a vision benefit, and 97 percent (102,700 people) of beneficiaries stand to gain from adding a hearing benefit.

On December 6, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) released an updated version of their bipartisan Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act of 201. Will McConnell, who controls its legislative fate, allow it to be considered on the Senate floor? Can a conference committee iron out the different between a Senate bill and H.R. 3, that can be pass both chambers and be signed by the president?

The legislative clock is ticking. It’s 324 days until the upcoming 2020 presidential election and the voters are demanding Congress to put aside philosophical policy differences and come up with a compromise that will truly put the brakes on rising drug costs. We’ll see.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

House Committee Moves to Rein in Skyrocketing Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 1, 2019

On Nov. 18, House Antitrust Subcommittee Chair David N. Cicilline (D-RI) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-RI) introduced The Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Through Promoting Competition Act of 2019 (H.R. 5133) to put the brakes on skyrocketing prescription drug costs. The bill attacked increasing costs by prohibiting pharmaceutical companies from engaging in anticompetitive “product hopping.”

Two days later, the Committee unanimously passed the bipartisan bill to drive down the rising costs of prescription drugs. Now H.R. 5133 goes to the House floor for a vote.

“Big pharmaceutical companies have done everything they can to increase their profits regardless of who it affects. Their CEOs make millions in bonuses ever year while hardworking folks are forced to ration their medicine just so they can put food on the table for their kids,” said Cicilline, in a released statement announcing the introduction of the bill.

Since becoming Chair of the House Antitrust Subcommittee, Cicilline has sought to take on the anticompetitive behavior in the health care and pharmaceutical sectors. “This is wrong, and it needs to stop. This bill, along with the suite of legislation to lower health care costs the House has passed already this year, will put an end to anticompetitive behavior that is driving prices up while pushing the middle class further and further down,” says Cicilline in pushing for the bill’s passage.

“This bill builds on the Committee’s strong record of bipartisan legislation to confront one of the leading drivers of high prescription drug costs—efforts by drug companies to keep generic drugs off the market so that they can preserve their monopoly profits,” adds Chairman Nadler when H.R. 5133 was thrown into the legislative hopper. “The outrageous behavior of product hopping puts profits before patients and thwarts the competition that is essential to lowering prescription drug prices,” he charges. Nadler says that H.R. 5133 would “encourage drug companies to focus on delivering meaningful innovation for sick patients rather than delivering profits to their bottom line.”

Fixing the Problem

According to Cicilline and Nadler, pharmaceutical companies use a wide array of tactics when their patent on a drug is near expiration to switch patients to another version of the drug that they have the exclusive right to sell. Called “product hopping,” this anticompetitive practice extends the manufacturer’s ability to charge monopoly prices by blocking the patient’s ability to switch to a cheaper, generic alternative. Product hopping benefits the manufacturer’s bottom line at the expense of patients who are stuck paying higher prices often for many years at a time, they say.

The two Congressmen say that there is another roadblock to lowering prescription drug costs. Although antitrust agencies have made an effort to curb product hopping, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) still faces a number of hurdles under existing law when trying to hold companies accountable for this anticompetitive conduct. The Affordable Prescriptions for Patients Through Promoting Competition Act of 2019 strengthens the FTC’s ability to bring and win cases against pharmaceutical companies that engage in all forms of product hopping.

A similar version of H.R. 5133 was considered in the Senate and it would save taxpayers an estimated $500 million according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

A week earlier, before H.R. 5133 was passed by the and Judiciary Committee, a new report was released by AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI), giving data to Congress to enact legislation to lowering prescription drug costs. The report findings indicate that brand-name drug prices rose more than twice as fast as inflation in 2018.

According to the AARP PPI report, retail prices for 267 brand-name drugs commonly used by older adults surged by an average of 5.8 percent in 2018, more than twice the general inflation rate of 2.4 percent. The annual average cost of therapy for one brand-name drug ballooned to more than $7,200 in 2018, up from nearly $1,900 in 2006.

“There seems to be no end to these relentless brand-name drug price increases,” said Debra Whitman, Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer at AARP, in a Nov. 13 statement announcing the release of the report. “To put this into perspective: If gasoline prices had grown at the same rate as these widely-used brand-name drugs over the past 12 years, gas would cost $8.34 per gallon at the pump today. Imagine how outraged Americans would be if they were forced to pay those kinds of prices,” says Whitman.

Brand-name drug price increases have consistently and substantially exceeded the general inflation rate of other consumer goods for over a decade, notes the AARP PPI data.

If brand-name drug retail price changes had been limited to the general inflation rate between 2006 and 2018, the average annual cost of therapy for one brand-name drug would be a whopping $5,000 lower today ($2,178 vs. $7,202). The report’s findings note that the average senior takes 4 to 5 medications each month, and the current cost of therapy translates into an annual cost of more than $32,000, almost 25 percent higher than the median annual income of $26,200 for a Medicare beneficiary.

“While some people will undoubtedly see a slower rate of price increases as a sign of improvement, the reality is that there is absolutely nothing to stop drug companies from reverting back to double-digit percentage price increases every year,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Health Services Research, AARP Public Policy Institute, and co-author of the report. “Americans will remain at the mercy of drug manufacturers’ pricing behavior until Congress takes major legislative action,” adds Purvis.

With over 340 days before the upcoming 2020 Presidential and Congressional elections, Senate Democrats say that more than 250 House-passed bills are “buried in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky) legislative graveyard.” The Senate’s top Republican}, referred to as the “Grim Reaper,” has blocked consideration on these bills (including prescription drug pricing bills) effectively killing them. As the election day gets closer this number is expected to increase.

President Trump and Republican lawmakers are loudly chanting that the Democrats are “getting nothing done in Congress.” This is just fake “political” news. Major reforms that would prop up Social Security, Medicare, and lower Prescription Drug prices get the legislative kibosh in the GOP-controlled Senate. It is now time to put these bills to an up or down vote in the upper chamber. The voters will send a message to Congress next November if they agree with the results. It’s time for McConnell to put down his reaper

For details, of AARP report, go to http://www.aarp.org/rxpricewatch.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Putting the Brakes on Skyrocketing Prescription Drug Costs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 25, 2019

A few days ago, AARP Rhode Island released new state specific data detailing the impact of high prescription drug prices for Ocean State residents, specifically those living with cancer, prediabetes or diabetes, and heart disease. The Washington-based AARP unveiled the infographic at the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) annual conference as part of AARP’s nationwide Stop Rx Greed campaign to lower drug prices for all Americans.

“While prescription drug prices continue skyrocketing, Americans are being forced to choose between filling life-saving medications or paying rent and buying food,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell in an August 21 statement announcing the release of the drug cost data. “So far in 2019, 29 states have passed 46 new laws to rein in drug prices. It’s critical that state and federal lawmakers continue this momentum to stop Rx greed.” says Connell.

Across the nation, 28 percent of consumers ages 19 to 64, say they are being forced to choose between filling costly life-saving prescriptions and paying their rent, buying food and affording other critical essentials, according to AARP research. In 2016, 25 percent of Rhode Islanders stopped taking a prescription drug prescribed by their health care provider due to cost.

The AARP Rhode Island-specific Infographic zeros in on three commonly used prescriptions to treat cancer, diabetes and heart disease to detail the spiraling increases in drug costs.

Between 2012 and 2017, the retail price of Revlimid, used to treat cancer, increased from $147,413 per year to $247,496 per year. In Rhode Island, 112,403 people are living with cancer.

Lantus, a form of insulin used to treat diabetes, increased from $2,907 per year to $4,702 per year. There are 82,318 people with diabetes in Rhode Island.

Finally, Aggrenox, a heart disease medication, increased from $3,030 per year to $5,930 per year. In Rhode Island, 31, 756 people have heart disease.

Specialty Drug Prices Continue 12-Year Surge

The AARP-state specific infographic released this month follows on the heels of an earlier AARP Public Policy Institute report released in June, reporting that the prices of widely used specialty prescription drugs grew more than three times faster than general inflation in 2017.

The researchers found that the average annual price for a single specialty drug used on a chronic basis is now nearly $79,000, compared to $27,824 in 2006.

Specialty drugs often require special administration and handling and are used to treat conditions that often affect older populations, including cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.

According to the findings of the AARP report, the average annual cost for a single specialty drug was almost $20,000 more than the median U.S. household income ($60,336), more than three times the median income for beneficiaries ($26,200, and over four-and-a-half times higher than the average Social Security retirement benefit ($26,200).

The report also found that the average annual p rice for one specialty medication would have been $29,843 in 2017 – almost $50,000 lower – if the retail price changes for these products had been limited to general inflation between 2006 and 2017.

“Prescription drugs are not affordable when their prices exceed the patient’s entire income,” said Debra Whitman, AARP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer. Unfortunately, drug prices seem to be in a never-ending race to the top, leaving more and more people unable to afford the medications they need,” she says.

The researchers also noted that revlimid, used to treat cancer, had the highest annual price surge of the 30 top selling specialty drugs at 21.4 percent, going from $203,928 in 2016 to $247,497 in 2017. Revatio, a pulmonary hypertension medication, had the single highest retail price increase (48 percent) among the 97 most widely used specialty drugs.

“Specialty drugs account for the majority of the prescription drugs that were approved by the FDA in recent years,” said Leigh Purvis, Director of Research at AARP Policy Institute. “Given the remarkably high prices associated with such products, it is imperative that policymakers finally enact meaningful changes that target drug manufacturers’ pricing behavior,” she said.

Putting the Brakes to Skyrocketing Drug Costs

Last March, AARP launched its ‘Stop Rx Greed Campaign’ to find Federal and State solutions to slash skyrocketing drug prices. The goal of AARP’s sustained campaign is to help drive down drug prices for all Americans by advocating for a variety of legislative, executive, and regulatory actions at both the federal and state level.

“Americans are paying the highest prescription drug prices in the world,” said Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond, in a statement kicking off this advocacy initiative. “It’s time for pharmaceutical companies to stop deflecting blame and acknowledge that the root cause is the price they set for their products,” she says.

The Stop Rx Greed campaign will include national television, radio and digital ads, editorial content, emails to members, social media posts, ongoing advocacy and grassroots activity in D.C. and the states, and a petition calling on Congress and the Administration to take action now.

As part of the campaign, AARP is actively supporting a number of policy solutions at the national and state level to help lower drug prices. The aging advocacy group supports allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices and states to negotiate lower prices with drug companies. AARP also calls for giving state Attorneys General authority to crack down on outrageous price increases and clamping down on pay-for-delay and other loopholes that keep
lower cost generic drugs off the market. Finally, AARP endorses capping prescription drug out-of-pocket costs and preserving state pharmacy assistance programs.

Congress is now considering legislation to put the brakes on rising pharmaceutical calls. As the 2020 election approaches the GOP-controlled Senate must work across the aisle with Senate Democrats to craft and pass bipartisan legislation to lower drug costs. It’s time for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who vows to block any Democratic priories coming out of the Democratic-controlled Houses to the Senate, to put Senate companion bills on the floor for a vote. It’s time for the Kentucky Senator to put the needs of older Americans first, rather than political wins.

For more details about AARP’s Stop Rx Greed initiative, go to http://www.aarp.org/politics-society/advocacy/prescription-drugs/.

House Bill to Expand, Strengthen Social Security

Published in Woosocket Call on February 3, 2019

With the 116th Congress kicking off on January 3, 2019 and the Democrats seizing control of the House, it did not take long for a bill to emerge that would strengthen and expand the nation’s Social Security program. Seven years ago, when U.S. Congressman John Larson (D-CT) first introduced the Social Security 2100 Act during the 113th Congress, the GOP controlled Congress blocked a fair hearing and vote. Now, with a Democratic majority in the House Larson’s Social Security proposal will finally get a thorough review as Democrats take control of the House Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor. These committees have oversight of Social Security.

Larson chose to throw the bill into legislative hopper on the 137th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birth, who signed Social Security into law in 1935.

On January 30, 2019, Larson, recently appointed to chair of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, introduced H.R.860, the Social Security Act 2100 Act, with over 202 House Democrats cosponsors (including Rhode Island Representatives David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin), to ensure the retirement security of working Americans for another century.

Passage of the Social Security 2100 Act only requires a simple majority vote of 218 lawmakers. With 235 Democratic lawmakers sitting in this chamber, it is expected to pass. But, with the Senate-controlled by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP caucus, it will be difficult for Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to see their companion measure make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

H.R. 860’s eight provisions expand benefits for 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. It would provide an across-the-board benefit increase for current and new beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2 percent of the average benefit. It also calls for an improved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), through adopting a CPI-E formula, that takes into account the true costs (include health care expenses) incurred by seniors and a stronger minimum benefit set at 25 percent above the poverty line, tied to their wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind. Finally, the bill would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally, 12 million Social Security recipients will receive a tax cut through the eliminating the tax on their benefits.

Increasing the Financial Solvency of Social Security

According to an independent analysis of the Social Security’s Office of the Chief Actuary, H.R. 860 proposal would also strengthen and protect the Trust Funds by 75 years.

H.R. 860 would have wealthy individuals pay the same rate as everyone else. Presently, payroll taxes are not collected on wages over $132,900.
Larson’s legislation would apply the payroll tax to wages of $400,000, affecting the top 0.4% of wage earners. The bill gradually phases in an increase in the pay roll contribution rate beginning in 2020, of 50 cents per week, so that by 2043 workers and employers would pay 7.4 percent instead of 6.2 percent. Finally, the bill’s provisions would combine the Old-Age and Survivors, called Social Security, and the Disability Insurance trust funds into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure that all benefits will be paid.

“Social Security is a promise that after a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity and economic security. It’s critical that Congress preserve and strengthen this promise for years to come,” said Cicilline, who serves as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, representing Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district.

Larson, recently appointed chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, noted, “With 10,000 baby boomers becoming eligible for Social Security every day, the time to act is now. The Social Security 2100 Act will provide economic security not just for today’s seniors but for future generations too,” said Larson, as the bill was thrown into the legislative hopper.”

There have not been any significant adjustments to Social Security since 1983, when Tip O’Neill was Speaker and Ronald Reagan was President, said Larson. “It’s time for Congress and the President to come together again, just like Speaker O’Neill and President Reagan did to make this a reality, he said.

“For years, fiscal hawks have told us that the only way to ‘save’ Social Security is to cut benefits for future retirees. Congressman Larson’s bill is a resounding rebuke to those claims. The Social Security Act 2100 keeps the program financially sound for most of this century while boosting benefits for millions of beneficiaries,” said Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Richtman says, “Congressman Larson has promised that, for the first time, this legislation will receive thorough consideration in the U.S. House, including hearings with testimony from experts and the public. We applaud him for his vision, persistence, and advocacy on behalf of America’s current and future retirees in moving this bill forward.”

Today, more than 222,000 Rhode Islanders receive Social Security benefits today. It is the most important retirement income for 4 out of 5 seniors and provides financial protections to disabled workers and families who have lost a breadwinner.

For decades, GOP lawmakers pushed its Social Security reforms by privatization, raising the retirement eligibility age and imposing stingier COLA formulas. But, national poll after poll, across party lines and age groups, revealed the public’s strong support for the nation’s retirement program.

Washington Insiders expect Larson’s Social Security bill to pass the House. While GOP Senate leadership keeps the companion measure at arms-length, the upcoming 2020 elections may well grease the legislative wheels for passage. Over 20 Republican Senate, whose seats are at serious risk, may well vote for passage with Democratic Senators.
Stay tuned…